Movie Review: “12 Years a Slave”

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson
Steve McQueen

If the critics at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival had their way, “12 Years a Slave” would win the Academy Award for Best Picture, despite the fact that there are still plenty of Oscar hopefuls yet to be released. That kind of short-sightedness and hyperbolic mentality is exactly what’s wrong with the dog and pony show we call awards season, because while Steve McQueen’s historical drama may tick several of the requisite boxes for a typical Oscar-winning movie, it’s far too early to make that call. You can praise the film’s realistic depiction of slavery all you like, but just because “12 Years a Slave” is hard to watch doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s deserving of the top prize.

Based on the 1853 memoir of the same name, the film recounts the tale of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living with his wife and children in Saratoga, New York in 1841. Well-educated and a talented violinist, Solomon is invited to Washington, D.C. by a pair of circus promoters who offer him a lucrative job playing at one of their shows. Upon arriving in the capital city, Solomon is wined and dined by the two men, only to awaken the next morning to find himself shackled and charged as a fugitive slave from Georgia. Despite his claims that he’s a free man, Solomon is wrangled up with other “fugitives” and shipped to a slave trader in the South, who then sells him to a kindly plantation owner named William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). But when Solomon causes trouble with one of Ford’s white employees, he’s sold again, this time to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a decidedly more malicious owner with a reputation for breaking the spirits of any slave under his rule.

“12 Years a Slave” is without a doubt McQueen’s most accessible film to date. Though it boasts the same gorgeous cinematography from longtime collaborator Sean Bobbitt, it’s not as experimental as his first two films, instead opting for a more straightforward narrative. Unfortunately, the movie isn’t without its faults, and John Ridley’s screenplay is chief among them, riddled with bad dialogue that’s made only marginally better by the ensemble cast. Some of the actors treat it like they’re reading Shakespeare (Paul Dano is the worst offender), and the theatricality of their performances weakens what would otherwise be powerful scenes. The number of high-profile cameos is also incredibly disconcerting, because while it’s nice to see actors like Paul Giamatti and Brad Pitt in smaller roles, it pulls you out of the movie. Of the supporting cast, only Fassbender gets a part with any real meat on it, although Sarah Paulson leaves quite the impression as Epps’ equally cruel wife.

As a result, Chiwetel Ejiofor is left to shoulder most of the weight, and he performs admirably in the lead role. Ejiofor is one of those actors that’s been on the verge of breaking out for years, and he’s finally been given the chance to showcase his talents here with a brilliant performance that not only holds the movie together, but outshines it completely. Without Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave” would be just another mediocre drama about slavery in the antebellum South. McQueen’s film is way too long for such a thinly scripted story, hammering you with the same ideas over and over to the point of exhaustion. It’s almost too in-your-face at times – less concerned with the character’s own emotional journey than piling on the white guilt through some of the most vile, one-dimensional caricatures imaginable – and though Solomon Northup’s story is one that deserves to be told, it could have benefited from a little restraint.


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5 responses to “Movie Review: “12 Years a Slave””

  • Carlos says:

    Dear Jason Zingale,

    While I respect your opinion on the movie, 12 Years A Slave shouldn’t lose stars because you feel the scenes are too ‘in-your-face,’ that the film ‘could have benefited from a little restraint’ or that the film was ‘less concerned with the character’s own emotional journey than piling on the white guilt.’

    That genuinely hurt to read.

    It is a fucking movie about slavery. Slavery is not, was not, and never was a pleasant point in American history. Unfortunately, society has tried its damndest to sweep this scar under the rug, which is probably why you were so taken aback by the what you saw. It’s a great film, and story that NEEDED to be told WITHOUT the happy Hollywood blinders. When a movie like that is presented to you, embrace it. It’s factual. It’s intense, but that was the reality of the time-period.

    If you feel guilty because of the movie, or feel that the movie is intentionally guilt-tripping white society, then I feel that maybe you need do some soul-searching and recognize why you are feeling guilty and uncomfortable. It is supposed to make you squirm, it is supposed to make you think.

    Please don’t write it off because YOU got offended (that is hilarious btw). But I will take it as a sign that the film is working. Just need it showing in more theaters, and more positive reviews/ publicity!

  • Caroline says:

    Absolutely agree with the above comment. You need to justify your criticism with a bit more explanation. Having just seen the movie, I’d say it was pretty spare and anti-dramatic. The acts spoke volumes, but the actors were restrained. Yes, it is full of despicable acts and perhaps not all of these occurred on every plantation, but this is based on one man’s true experiences.

  • Ginger Goodman says:

    This wasn’t a nice review because you didn’t care for the movie! I watched it last night and it’s amazing. Very harrowing and not a movie for America, but it’s wonderful with amazing performances. It will no doubt win many awards!

  • Snowden says:

    Coming into this movie expecting more of an arthouse experience from Steve McQueen, I was blown away with this beautifully shot, carefully constructed narrative.

    Though I do agree with you on one point, Paul Giamatti and Brad Pitt kind of took me away from the movie a bit. I agree with nothing else. I never felt it was too long or that lines were spoken over dramatically. What blew me away about this film was how patient the director was with the scenes.

    He would allow the camera to sit on Solomon, waiting on a gazeebo for the return of a pissed off Paul Dano, or show him hanging from a tree while the other slaves work and play around him as if it were an everyday experience; for far longer time than most directors allow. I found my self most emotional during these scenes. There’s something beautiful to the quiet patient camera work in this film. Though Chiwetel Ejiofor was fantastic, it is not just his performance that made this film. Dave Chapelle could of played the part of solomon and I would still be absolutely blown away by this film.

    From your review I take it your a Spielberg fan; a fan of the director who sticks to their conventions. While those are good films, don’t give this one a poor review because it’s not “restrained” enough for you.

  • Tim says:

    Jason, I agree with your review. A film that is not the sum of its parts. Great performances, remarkable cinematography, and an important story. But the film falls short in terms of complexity and nuance in its storytelling, and is detracted by a litany of one dimensional, almost melodramatic, characterizations. It makes its important point, but with the brutal repetition of a whip lashing. The film seeks to teach the lesson through corporal punishment, as if torturing the viewer is the only righteous way the audience will get the point. I found the film lacking in dimension, and because of the powerful tone it strikes, those who are less than enamoured I suspect will be heavily routed for giving this film less than glowering remarks.

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